'I Dream of Wires' and the legacy of the Modular Synthesizer
From next week you will be able to buy what may be one of the most unusual documentaries released all year. I Dream Of Wires: The Hardcore Edition is the four-hour director’s cut edition of a lovingly assembled documentary dedicated to the history, demise and resurgence of the modular synthesizer.
Although early incarnations of the instrument had been around since the early 20th century, it wasn’t until Bob Moog designed and built the first of his modular systems in the mid-1960s that the idea began to take off. There have of course been numerous documentaries on the subject, but what makes I Dream Of Wires different is not only the sheer depth of detail on the subject – especially in terms of the diversity of interviewees, including everyone from Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor to Depeche Mode / Yazoo's Vince Clarke - but also the way in which the film documents the strange sub-culture that has grown up around the instrument. There is a whole scene dedicated to designing and building modules for these vast synthesizers, some of whom are musicians who actually use them, but others are engineers and hobbyists who just like building them.
The film also charts the rise in popularity of modular synths during the 70s – particularly among progressive rock acts - and their subsequent decline in the 80s as digital synthesis began to take over. They are, however, beginning to make a comeback: there is something appealing about all those knobs and dials, a tactile, hands-on experience that is difficult to replicate with software. As one of the interviewees points out: “There are loads of software synthesizers these days – and some of them sound great – but interfacing with them is a nightmare."
Four hours is a long running time by anyone’s standards, but if synthesizers are your thing this documentary provides a huge amount of insight and should appeal in particular to musicians or engineers. For those who don’t know the history of the instrument, or just like the sounds that synths like these can produce, we’ve put together a list of 10 of the best albums that would just not have been possible without them.
The band that did more to advance electronic music than any other, Kraftwerk were building their own synthesizers and drum machines since the late 1960s, but their breakthrough 1974 album Autobahn cemented the instrument as a rising force in popular music and influenced countless artists across many genres, from Afrika Bambaataa to Depeche Mode.
From Here To Eternity
Moroder had already produced the first hit made entirely with synthesizers with Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, but this 1977 album from the man with the moustache took this idea to the next level and proved to be a huge influence on the house music scene of the 1980s.
One of the most criminally underrated musicians on this list, Perrey was a pioneer and friend of Bob Moog who helped him develop the instrument and provided some of the best early examples of its possibilities. His seminal 1970 album Moog Indigo was hugely influential on the hip-hop scene of the late 1980s, with the track ‘E.V.A.’ being sampled by Gang Starr and House of Pain amongst others.
Recorded in his kitchen using a variety of borrowed synthesizers and other equipment, Jean-Michel Jarre originally had problems finding anyone willing to release Oxygène until small French label Disques Motors agreed to press a run of 50,000 copies. The album went on to sell over 15 million copies worldwide and became one of the biggest catalysts to widespread use of the synthesizer in the 1970s.
Tonto’s Expanding Head Band
Better known as the session musicians behind Stevie Wonder’s extraordinary creative period in the 1970s, British duo Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff can take a lot of credit for Wonder’s experimentation with synthesizers, but this 1971 album started it all off. The band is even named after a synthesizer: ‘TONTO’ stands for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, the name given to the first – and still the largest – modular synthesizer in the world.
Blade Runner (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)
By no means the first soundtrack to use only electronic instruments – that honour belongs to Louis & Bebe Barron for their 1956 score to Forbidden Planet – but Vangelis’ score to Ridley Scott’s legendary 1982 sci-fi film has become iconic in its own right thanks to its use of the synthesizer to create an electronic music in an orchestral style.
Looking for St. Tropez
Influenced both by the electronic sound of Kraftwerk and the attitude of the Punk scene, Telex’s 1979 debut was critically acclaimed and featured the track ‘Moskow Diskow’, which became an international hit. They followed this in 1980 by entering the Eurovision Song Contest, representing their native Belgium, with the aim of finishing last. (They finished second-last, ahead of Portugal.)
Music Has The Right To Children
Boards of Canada
Perhaps marking the beginning of a backlash against digital and software synthesizers, B.O.C.’s 1998 full-length debut is awash with bubbling analogue synths and ageing equipment. Their production tricks are a closely-guarded secret but they are rumoured to use a host of analogue gear, including modular synths and old tape machines.
Random Access Memories
The French duo burst back onto the scene this year and they’ve gone right back to the 70s with a gleaming disco record, but it wouldn’t have been possible without their huge, custom-built Modcan synthesizer, which the flew around the world for nearly three years in order to use it in a variety of world-famous studios.
It’s The Arps
Technically the odd one out on this list as it’s only an E.P., but the Norwegian house producer’s concept release uses only sounds generated by one synthesizer: The Arp 2600. Drum sounds, bass and everything else were created on this one analogue beast and if the success of his 2012 club smash 'Inspector Norse' is anything to go by, who needs computers to make dance music?